By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
DES MOINES -- The Ron Paul boys have come to this great state by bus and borrowed ride, with long johns under their jeans and little in their pockets.
All day, they go door-to-door in the snow on behalf of their hero, the libertarian and 10-term Republican congressman Ron Paul. At night, they sleep in YMCA cabins, one of which has no hot water.
"A lot of guys in a small area," says Jeff Frazee, the Paul campaign's youth coordinator. "Doesn't smell the best."
During spare moments, which are rare, the Paul boys watch guy movies such as "Transformers" and wish there were more girls around.
Oh well, says Adam Kirschner, 23, of Ozark Christian College, leaning against a wall in the campaign office. "We didn't come here for the chicks."
"Speak for yourself," says Eddie Siegel, 18.
One of the unlikeliest stories in this city in the last days before tomorrow's caucuses is the young men who have flocked to the long-shot candidacy of Paul. He seems an unusual icon for them. He is 72 and a great-grandfather. He has been married half a century. He adores his tomato plants and is generally mild-mannered when not calling for the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education.
"He's so sweet," says Corey Walsh, 19, a college freshman from Marshall, Ark., who recently got to give Paul a hug. "I really wish he was my grandpa."
The Paul brigade has come to Iowa as part of a student outreach effort the campaign calls "Ron Paul's Christmas Vacation," which makes the whole thing sound madcap, like a Chevy Chase movie. And it is a little like that. There are nearly 300 young people staying at camps across the state. The ones nearest Des Moines spend their days hopping on and off a 1980s school bus that's been painted red, white and blue and dubbed the Constitution Coach. It drops them off in neighborhoods where the kids canvass and where -- on a recent weekday around noon -- two Paul boys have very little luck getting anyone to talk to them.
"How do you feel about Ron Paul?" Andrew Pierson, 21, asks a man coming down his driveway in Johnston. Pierson's mustache has icicles on it.
"I feel like I've got about 15 minutes to eat lunch and get back to work," the man replies.
Pierson's compatriot, Daniel Selsam, 23, has taken off his gloves to better grip the pamphlets he's putting behind people's screen doors. His fingers ache from the cold.
"I'm going to get freedom frostbite!" Selsam says.
("Freedom" is a favorite catchphrase of Paul acolytes, along with the word "Constitution."
One volunteer says an organizer told the kids when they arrived last week: "Three rules. No drugs, no booze and no freedom babies.")
The fellow in charge of directions on the Constitution Coach wears a Santa cap and goes by the nickname "Munk." He spends a lot of time rifling through various maps to figure out where the bus is going. When he's not doing that, he's hunting for phone numbers. When he's not doing that, he's answering a cellphone with the enthusiasm of a game show emcee.
"Constitution Coach!" he calls out every time the phone rings, which is every few minutes.
There is some heckling on the bus. Sometimes, it stops for food or a bathroom break. ("You got a small bladder back there?" "Shut up.") Munk, whose real name is Matt Munkacsy and who is 23 and rode a Greyhound from D.C. to get to Iowa, jokes about picking up a "hottie." The guys speak with reverence of "Dr. Paul," who is an obstetrician, and speak in sneering tones of the fancy, new-looking bus owned by Republican rival Mike Huckabee's campaign. They call the bus "The Huckabeast."
The Constitution Coach has been loaned to the Paul campaign by a pro-Paul home-schooling family of nine (with one more on the way). It has slogans written on the outside: "NO AMNESTY," "NO PATRIOT ACT," "NO NAFTA," "NO NATIONAL I.D." This is fitting because in the House, the Texas congressman is known as Dr. No for his opposition to nearly everything. Paul sees the oppressive hand of Big Government everywhere. He doesn't like the Iraq war or the United Nations. He didn't approve of sending aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina. He doesn't like the CIA, the Federal Reserve or federal drug laws.
Paul ran on a libertarian ticket in 1988, but those were different days. This time around, he has attracted a huge Internet following and has raised a stunning $19.5 million in the last three months, much of it online.
"Without the Internet, we would be, like, nobody," says Timothy Maksimovic, 19, of Cleveland, who is sitting in the middle of the bus.
The young folks on the bus -- and to be fair, of the 30 or so young people, there are two or three girls -- are adorably scruffy. Many have long hair. One of the young women has blue streaks in her hair. If they weren't here, they'd look perfectly appropriate at a Dennis Kucinich rally. They seem to like Paul as much for his style as for his stances. They seem drawn to his radicalism, to the fact that he says he would end the war and stabilize the nation's currency, and to the fact that he seems so authentic, so straight-talking, so . . . not like a politician.
"He's so chilled out," Munk says.
"He's consistent. So even if it's something I don't believe in, I know where he stands," says Brittney Lowery, 20, of Houston. She is newly married and sitting on the bus beside her 25-year-old husband, Adam Weibling. They joke that this is their honeymoon.
For the most part, the Ron Paulsters feel good about their candidate's chances. After all, in a recent poll, Paul had risen to 9 percent among Iowa Republicans.
One kid says he worked Christmas, New Year's and his birthday for Paul -- but he'll get to celebrate them all when Paul makes the top three in the caucuses. Another kid says he's always on the alert for what he ominously calls "political espionage."
You can never be too careful with this much at stake.
"I think Ron Paul would devastate Hillary," says Walsh, the kid who got to hug his hero.